It doesn't matter that Tennessee and Northwestern haven't squared off on the football field in 18 years for the two schools' only gridiron meeting. When Vols get set to line up against the Wildcats Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl, the two current coaching staffs will be very familiar with one another.
Butch Jones and Pat Fitzgerald have admired each other's programs from afar over the years and both coaches' staffs have met in recent offseasons to talk football and scheme.
"Tennessee is one of the staffs that our guys have gotten together with in the offseason," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a conference call Sunday." If you watch us on tape, schematically, especially on offense, there are a lot of similarities to what we're doing schematically. There's been some work together from their staff and our staff."
The Vols partnered with the Wildcats' staff during various coaching clinics outside of football season, adding an intriguing subplot to a bowl game between two largely unfamiliar programs.
"Northwestern is a football program that, when you look at, we admire them, in terms of their style of play and what they stand for," Jones said via conference call Sunday. "We've gotten together a number of times as staffs at joint clinics just to talk football and, again, I just have a tremendous amount of respect for him and his entire coaching staff."
The two teams do show similarities, specifically in their unwavering reliance on the run game to bolster offensive production. The Wildcats rank No. 38 in the country in rushing yards per game with 193.25 behind Justin Jackson, who serves as the rushing attack's bellcow with 1,344 yards on the season with 298 carries. The Vols are the better rushing team, averaging 223 yards per game behind the three-headed monster of running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and quarterback Josh Dobbs, but leaning on the run game isn't the only thing these two teams have in common. Both teams rank in the bottom third in the NCAA in passing offense and have ended the season on fire.
"Both teams are very similar coming in with a five-game winning streak," Jones said. "They (Northwestern) lost to some very, very good football teams like we have. I think both teams have a lot of confidence. They're a very disciplined football team. They don't beat themselves."
The Wildcats fell in back-to-back Big 10 games to Michigan and Iowa by a combined score of 78-10 before ripping off five straight wins to end the season 10-2 (6-2). Tennessee did something similar after dropping a heartbreaking 19-14 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, using the defeat as a springboard into a five-game win streak itself.
Tennessee and Northwestern have heated up at the right time, and Jones wasn't shy in his excitement about playing the Wildcats in one of the New Year's Day bowl games for the first time in his Tennessee career.
"We're very fortunate to be playing in one of the best bowls," Jones said. "When you're talking to coaches around the country, when you think about the Outback Bowl, or when you speak about the Outback Bowl, everyone talks about the first class operation that it is. It's a destination that our players have really pointed towards. One of the most gratifying things so far in our short tenure here at Tennessee was being able to gather our team together and tell them we're going to Tampa and going to play in the 30th anniversary game of the Outback Bowl."